The tree man of SoWeBo Greens: Gary Letteron has a passion for transforming abandoned plots in Southwest Baltimore into urban gardens and parks.

June 07, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

An article in the June 7 editions of The Sun about tree planting in the Hollins Market area failed to mention that half of the space for the neighborhood nursery is donated by Scallio's Tavern. The rest of the nursery was built on an abandoned lot.

The Sun regrets the error.

Gary Letteron is a good soul who slaves to seed the city with trees.

Where some guys trick out their Camaros with flaming paint jobs, Letteron cruises Southwest Baltimore in a pickup truck with autumn leaves drawn on its fenders, its bed heavy with zelkova, beech and ash.

His battle cry?

"Plant 'em green side up!"

The best-known street arborist in Baltimore, Letteron is a green Robin Hood who rescues trees growing in the path of suburban bulldozers and replants them in the weary city; the self-appointed horticulturist of SoWeBo who supplies neighborhood kids with hot dogs and shovels in a frantic campaign to shade sidewalks and turn vacant lots into parks.


For a guy with the fragile heart of a poet, Letteron's audacity is legendary: take something ugly, show people how to have fun making it better and then dare anyone to say he had no right to do it.

"I started it because it needed to be done and it felt good," says Letteron in the lush Eden of the 500-tree Hollins Street Nursery, formerly a pair of abandoned lots next to Scallio's Tavern. "And then people patted me on the back for it, and that felt good too."

In the late 1970s, you might have encountered Letteron at Franklin Street's fabled Marble Bar, where he played keyboards for Edie "the Egg Lady" Massey, Fells Point's late queen of kitsch who appeared in the early films of John Waters.

It was just the kind of action he was looking for when he left his parents' home in Anneslie for downtown in 1978.

Today, you're likely to meet the 42-year-old West Lombard Street resident the way Frank Rogers did, over beer and trees.

"I met him at a mulching party," says Rogers, who volunteers with the Tree Tribe, an offshoot of the Parks and People nonprofit that gave Letteron a job after marveling at what he had done on his own for years.

"I wanted a tree in front of my house for a while," says Rogers, who lives near Letteron on Pratt Street. "One day Gary shows up with some sledgehammers and a couple of guys and they dig out a cement pit for some trees. I got a liberty elm and my neighbor got a white ash. The city says it costs $300 to dig a pit in the sidewalk and they can't afford it, but there's really nothing to it.

"Gary's stepped into this gray area and made it his own. You can bang your head against the bureaucracy all day long, but plant a tree and it's an immediate improvement."

The city's tree specialist, Marion Bedingfield, is as frustrated by the municipal budget as anyone. He dreams of having a Gary Letteron in every neighborhood.

"A lot of the stuff that Gary does we can't officially condone, but he wants his part of the city green," says Bedingfield, who has known Letteron for 10 years. "When we tell him we don't do sidewalk cuts, he calls back a day later and says we didn't look hard enough, that there's one there. Then you find out he went out and rented a jackhammer at his own expense.

"Once he wanted to plant on a vacant lot on Stockton Street and we told him we couldn't give permission because it belonged to someone in Virginia," says Bedingfield. "Somehow, it got planted anyway. It was literally a dumping pit, half-paved, full of refrigerators and garbage. Now it's a park. If I know Gary, most of the money is coming out of his own pocket. He's a cool guy."

Subsidizing his mission with money made from spin-art stands at neighborhood festivals and whatever he can scrape together in the SoWeBo tradition of throwing a party at any time for any cause, Letteron sees his work as a civic duty.

"The nursery was built on a vacant lot of an allegedly deceased man named Minor Jones," he says. "We just fenced it off and said to heck with it. Anything too small to be economically developed becomes a blight, a dump site. It's the right and responsibility of every community to take vacant lots. A utopian dream in Baltimore, free land to everyone!"

Terry Smith was so weary of the drugs and trash and street robberies in Southwest Baltimore that he was ready to unload a house he'd already paid off just to get out. Then he met Letteron and some of his signature flowers and trees, and decided to tough it out a little longer.

"He does everything on a handshake and it gets done," says Smith, a 20-year resident of West Ostend Street. "It's like 1969 with him -- instead of peace marching, he's tree marching. It's his dream to see squirrels flying through a canopy of trees over the city."

Just south of the 2800 block of Wilkens Ave. near Gwynns Falls, grass and trees from Letteron's hand grow behind an old garage. After planting the lot, Letteron put up a stern sign he found in his wanderings: WARNING! NO DUMPING IN THIS AREA. FIRE DEPARTMENT. BALTIMORE COUNTY.

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